Denmark Vesey was a free slave born in St. Thomas, which at that time was a colony of Denmark. His birth name was Telemaque and he was born in 1767. He was purchased by a slave merchant named Joseph Vesey when he was 14 years old. Vesey sold his slave to a farmer in St. Domingue, but he was later returned to Vesey because he was suffering from fits. Some accounts say that he might actually have been suffering from epilepsy whereas other records say he was pretending to have fits so he would be returned to his former master and not have to suffer harsh treatment at the hands of his new master.
Telemaque worked for Vesey for many years, and assisted him in his trade. He was fluent in English, French and Spanish and often accompanied Vesey to Bermuda, where he had business. After retirement, Vesey moved to Charleston, South Carolina, which was an affluent city and the center of rice and indigo plantations. Telemaque worked as a carpenter with other slaves and freed slaves, while he was still a slave of Vesey. In 1799, Telemaque won $1500 in the lottery. He used $600 to purchase his freedom from Vesey. He named himself Denmark Vesey after obtaining his freedom, and set up a business as a carpenter. He married a slave woman, whose freedom he tried to buy from her master, but he refused to sell her. They had children together, but according to the law, children born to a slave would also be considered slaves.
Vesey belonged to the Second Presbyterian church, and in 1818, he founded his own congregation called the “Bethel circuit” of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was the first independent black church in the United States. It was shut down twice by the authorities, as many officials feared that slaves were learning to read and write, which was prohibited under the slave code. When the Haitian Revolution took place, many slaves and free people of color fled to Charleston to seek refuge from the war. This increased the black population in the city. Another contributing factor was the reopening of ports for the slave trade. Between 1800 and 1808, about 50,000 slaves were brought into the United States from Africa, primarily by cotton planters who needed laborers.
In 1820, Vesey, who was a popular leader and authority figure in his church, began to plan a revolt against the city’s officials. His well-established business gave him the funds he needed to finance his plan. His church congregation represented more than 10% of the black population of the city and he garnered support from everyone he could find. Vesey held many secret meetings and decided to launch the rebellion on July 14, 1822 in honor of Bastille Day from the French Revolution, but changed it to June 16, fearing that word of the revolt would leak out. This was largely due to two slaves named George Wilson and Joe LaRoche, who were opposed to the idea. They testified against Vesey and the other leaders, due to which the mayor of the city launched an offensive against them. Many suspects were arrested, questioned and some of them were sentenced to death. This included Vesey, who was 55 years old at the time. If the revolt had been successful, it would have been the largest slave uprising at that time. Nevertheless, Denmark Vesey was the first one to plan an uprising of this scale and nature.